EARLIER this week, I was at a tasting of Swiss wines. This, for me, was rather like standing outside a French pâtisserie, drooling over what I can see, but knowing that I am unlikely to buy anything. Switzerland makes some of the most remarkable wines in the world. It works miracles with such humble grapes as the Chasselas, the Aligoté, and the Gamay, and makes Merlots and Pinot Noirs as good as the best from Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Of the 60-plus wines on offer, the cheapest retails at £18 a bottle, and the most expensive at £204. The strength of the Swiss franc, a thirsty and dedicated domestic market, and a limited production mean that less than two per cent of the country’s wine is exported.
The Swiss have managed to preserve a whole range of indigenous grape varieties that are rarely found anywhere else. These include the Petite Arvine and the Amigne, for white wines, and the Humagne Rouge and Cornalin for reds.
Most of us now are used to buying wine under the varietal name of the grape; whether Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay for white, or Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot for red. We have instant fashions for grapes such as Lambrusco, Malbec, and Pinot Grigio; but, out of the more than 1300 varieties recognised by Jancis Robinson and her co-authors in their book on the subject (Wine Grapes, Allen Lane), how many of us could name more than 20 or 30?
Not unnaturally, the high-street retailers are chary of introducing the unknown, but some interesting lesser-known varietal wines are there if you look for them. In this field it is perhaps Marks & Spencer that leads the way, with its white wines. One example on offer, from the English Lamberhurst Estate, is an aromatic Bacchus 2015 (£12).
From the same region as Armagnac, in the upper valley of the Garonne, they have a white wine from the 2015 vintage of Saint Mont (£9), an intriguing blend of three local varieties: the Gros Manseng, Arrufiac, and the Petit Courbu.
For those who prefer to spend rather less on their wines, but still seek a grape variety that will get guests sitting round the dinner-table talking, I would suggest Sainsbury’s herbaceous Grillo 2015, from the Mondelli winery in Sicily (£5), and Marques de Almeida Godello 2015 (£8.50). This wine comes from the north-west of Spain, close to the border with Portugal, and is made from the flavoursome Godello grape, which was all but extinct less than 40 years ago.
A red wine that I regularly enjoy is the Cabeza de Toro, from the Utiel-Requena region in the south-east. This is currently available from Laithwaites, in both the 2014 and 2015 vintages, for £7.99. Venturing farther afield, Waitrose has an opulent red Georgian wine, Orovela Kakheti 2008, made from the indigenous Saperavi grape (£16.79), and a crisply floral white Assyrtiko 2015, from the Hatzidakis winery
on the Greek island of Santorini (£12.99).
Tonight, I am off to a Turkish dinner. No doubt I will be able to tick off a few more grape varieties on my way to the 1300-plus.